Bay Life
Boat Rides on the Bay
Centennial Cruising on the Wm. B. Tennison
by Audrey Y. Scharmen

The evening was blue, cool and clear. The wide harbor lay smooth beyond as our party climbed aboard the Wm. B. Tennison at Calvert Marine Museum's dock on Solomons Island where the old bugeye shares lodging with another centenarian: the Drum Point Lighthouse. Both were acquired by Calvert Marine Museum some 20 years ago and brought here to live out their golden years.

The Tennison is celebrating her centennial this year, having begun life in 1899 as a sailor at Crab Island, where St. Peters Creek joins the Manokin River in Somerset County on Maryland's Eastern Shore. According to her biography, she was built for B.P. and R.L. Miles as a two-masted sail vessel. She is special: Her 60-foot hull is made of nine logs instead of the frame and plank used more frequently in 19th-century bugeyes.

Whether "chunk" (log) or plank-built, all bugeyes are the same in that they float on round-bottom, double-ended hulls and sprout two tall masts. Nobody can say for sure where the oddly named bugeye found its name, though one popular theory credits Scottish immigrants of the early 1700s. Their similarly formed "bucklar" vessels were used for smuggling on the Chesapeake, and resulting comparisons may have coined the term "bugeye" for Tennison types.

A part of her youth was spent in Virginia waters in the coasting trade as well as the oyster industry. There, in 1906-1907, her sail rigs were removed, she was converted to power and became a buyboat, carrying oysters from the beds to the packing houses. In 1945 she came home to Maryland to work for J.C. Lore and Sons Oyster Company in Solomons.

Since her retirement in 1978 she has spent her days at Calvert Marine Museum as the golden girl of an elite fleet: She's the oldest Coast Guard-licensed passenger vessel on the Chesapeake - and reportedly the third oldest in the United States. Only two other chunk-built bugeyes remain: the Edna E. Lockwood at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael's and the Dorothy A. Parsons, at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point. At least two plank-built cousins, Little Jenny and O. A. Bloxom, are also known to exist.

The identity of Tennison's namesake remains a mystery, but I think it is possible the abbreviation might even stand for Wilma or someone of that gender. There is an unmistakable aura of femininity in her trim lines and remarkable endurance in the face of past adversity.

As we cruised the river, harbor and deep creeks around Solomons aboard the beautiful old boat, I thought of how these shores must have looked when she was young: Author Hulbert Footner described the scene in Charles' Gift, his wonderful memoir of that time:

"That broad harbor with its unbroken green shore and dazzling beaches, busy all day with motorboats and the triangular sails of the rakish Chesapeake Bay canoes and bugeyes The island shaped like a briar pipe with the bowl pointing toward the mouth of the harbor rows of neat wooden houses facing the river while the back yards are washed by the creek behind the island a harbor for small boats with several creeks running into it, each with little creeks of its own, a fascinating maze for the canoeist."

The island still retained some of that innocence when first I saw it in the early 1970s. I recall the silence of summer broken only by church bells and birdsong and the strumming of halyards. Drowsy streets were lined with hollyhocks and hydrangeas. The building of a bridge over the lower Patuxent River, which connects the two counties of Calvert and St. Mary's, brought sudden change in the late '70s.

I live now amid that maze of lovely creeks that, in Footner's words, "fan out like the horns of an elk" just north of Solomons. There are only remnants of the past: A few weathered frame farmhouses and tottering docks, an old general store and one-room post office in Olivet and some plats of undeveloped woodland where eagles come and herons roost. They are youthful features peering from the many wrinkles of a beloved face.

Later that night, after our memorable cruise, when the bugeye lay snug in the "bowl of the pipe" back at Solomons and I in my berth on Mill Creek - (two old girls, about the same age in boat years, weary from an evening of revelry) - I recalled my first time aboard the Tennison:

It was during a Christmas party, December 23, 1981, an occasion which has since become a cherished local tradition. Dressed like Eskimos, we huddled for warmth around a blazing Yule log beneath a big willow tree on the grounds of the old Solomons school that then housed the budding Calvert Marine Museum. A highlight of the evening was a short trip around the harbor aboard the bugeye with Santa at the helm. His clear Irish tenor voice led the carolers, and our joyous notes hung like icicles in the frigid night. Overhead, Orion strutted and a full moon sailed through ice-clouds and cast a silver glow upon us all.

When I recounted this story recently, someone revealed that it was unlikely: In retirement Ms. Tennison was never allowed out after dark - especially in such weather, said he. Nor am I - now - I replied. But that was long ago when she and I were still young - and that's the way it was.

Captained by Donald M. Prescott, the Wm. B. Tennison continues her cruises of Solomons' harbor and the mouth of the Patuxent River, venturing as far as Drum Point, through October, with scheduled cruises at 2pm Wednesdays through Sundays ($5 w/children's discounts). Or charter the 47-passenger boat, as Scharmen's party did ($150 per hour).

Or reserve your place on one of two upcoming special cruises: the Centennial Dinner Cruise serves up crab cake or chicken sandwiches (5-7pm Sept. 12; $19 w/discount) and the Monster Mash Cruise for Kids and their Families features a contest for the scariest, cutest and funniest costumes (4:30-5:30pm Oct. 31; $5 w/discount).

Come November 1, the Tennison enters drydock for the final stage of 15 years of renovation to last the better part of winter. Her $50,000 millennial renovation will rebuild her pilot house, overhaul her engine, replace her engine beds and replace deck planks and beams. By May of 2000, a rejuvenated Tennison will enter her second century.

For reservations and information call 410/326-2042 x41.

Editor's note:

"Centennial Cruising on the Wm. B Tennison" is the third in our series of first-person experiences riding the big boats of Chesapeake Bay.

Like the Tennison, some of these boats were built for work, some for pleasure. Many are relics of fleets whose time has come and gone. Others are brand new.

Keep steaming, sailing and motoring with us.

| Issue 34 |

Volume VII Number 34
August 26 - September 1, 1999
New Bay Times

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